Residents from Lyme, Thetford, and surrounding towns filled Anderson Hall at Thetford Academy on Monday, November 28th. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NH DOT) was there to hold an informational hearing on the rehabilitation of the Lyme-East Thetford bridge. That work will see the crossing closed for 18 months beginning in the spring of 2023, giving the 1937 bridge another estimated 50 years of life.
NH DOT, represented by Project Manager Jennifer Reczek, presented a large amount of information that included underscoring that their charge was to make the bridge safe while “causing the least interference” to the historic Parker truss design. This charge, Reczek explained, ruled out replacing the bridge with a modern design, something many have advocated for.
Using a site map, Reczek demonstrated that there was not a sufficient right-of-way up or downstream to allow for the temporary bridge that residents on both sides of the river were calling for. She commented that a temporary bridge would cost $5 million and, last but not least, no design exists for it. She also informed the audience that NH DOT had not considered using the pier and abutments of the former North Thetford bridge, using engineering arguments to say the pier and abutments have been disused for 50 years. Furthermore, they are built of stone and would have to be structurally analyzed, including their foundations, to calculate how much load they could bear. They need repair as well.
The tone of the questions from the audience varied. Some were critical and irate over the 18-month closure and the prioritizing of historic preservation over providing a bridge that adequately meets the needs of transportation of today and of the future — calling for increased transport by bicycle and walking, as cars will hopefully be cut back as we combat climate change. The narrowness of the historic bridge was a frequent target of discontent, with several residents recounting that it is perilous for pedestrians and that they have had to “flatten” themselves against the side of the bridge to make way for oncoming vehicles.
Some were more conciliatory and offered solutions to the frequent complaint that the traffic lanes of the bridge are overly narrow. A solution that came up more than once was to install a traffic light at each end that would limit the bridge to one-way, one-lane travel for cars, with alternating directions. This would allow for a pedestrian and bicycle lane that would occupy the rest of the bridge.
Reczek ruled out the suggestion of adding pedestrian walkways that would be cantilevered out from the sides of the bridge. She asserted that an engineer would have to design them to support not just a few pedestrians, but the possibility of a whole line of people watching an event like a canoe race on the river. The bridge trusses are simply not designed to support the additional weight of such a walkway.
She also said that there were no accident reports at all involving the bridge, justifying the DOT position that it was not as unsafe as people claimed.
More than one business owner expressed concern that their business would be heavily impacted by an 18-month bridge closure and inquired about some form of compensation. They were told that they were not eligible for any compensation. Reczek said that she had talked to the Town Manager in Thetford and the Lyme selectboard and they had come up with the idea of road signs advertising businesses in Lyme and Thetford. However, the DOT does not provide funds for such signs. The expense would have to be borne by the towns.
While little or no really new information was presented to the public regarding the Lyme-East Thetford project, there were audible gasps from the audience when Reczek noted that work on Ledyard bridge (built 1998) between Hanover, NH, and Norwich, VT, would be taking place at the same time, from spring of 2023 through spring of 2024.
According to information presented by NH DOT at a public hearing, Ledyard bridge has poor pavement conditions, and its expansion joints and deck membrane are at the end of their design life. Work on the bridge will include concrete repairs of the deck, replacement of the deck membrane and pavement, replacement of both expansion joints, abutment waterproofing, cleaning of the bridge bearings, placement of stone around a southeast pipe outlet, and repairs to an undermining of the eastern abutment.
One travel lane of traffic will remain open in each direction by permanently removing the concrete median and the dedicated turn lane for Tuck Drive. At least one sidewalk will be open at all times to maintain pedestrian access.
The Lyme-East Thetford bridge sees an estimated 2,100-2,200 trips per day. Reczek commented at the hearing that she did not believe the 18-month closure would significantly impact traffic volume at the Hanover-Norwich crossing, which sees over 16,000 trips per day, since a trip south from Lyme/Thetford represents a 23-mile detour (one way) versus a trip north using the Orford-Fairlee crossing, which represents only an 18-mile detour if traveling between Thetford Center village and Lyme center.
The trip between the two villages using the Lyme-East Thetford bridge is approximately 5 miles.
While the pressure was on Reczek to put the Lyme-Thetford restoration project on hold, one attendee pointed out that it was not her decision to make since the regulations governing the project are primarily federal. Those unhappy with the bridge closure and decision to rehabilitate versus replace it may have to appeal to their federal delegation.
However, one thing is certain: the Lyme-East Thetford bridge will be closed. Reczek pointed out that it is currently #2 on the state’s Red List, a statewide list of bridges in the worst condition in order of priority. Whether it’s closed for rehabilitation or closed while a temporary or replacement bridge is designed, the current structure, as is, has reached the end of its life.